How Business Can Learn From The Performing Arts: A Case Study

By Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford

In 2011, a major oil and gas exploration company based in the UK set out on an extraordinary, arts-based leadership development programme at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, designed and led by Dr Mark Powell, chairman of the Human Energy Organisation. The oil and gas company’s senior project managers are responsible for multi-million-dollar exploration projects around the world and the programme was designed, not to give these senior managers enhanced skillsets or new theoretical frameworks, but to change their behaviours and mindsets – to change their culture. More specifically, the aim was to create a new culture, the key element of which could be described as ‘open-mindedness’, in two distinct forms:

  1. A heightened sensitivity to changing circumstances and the ability to react to these quickly, creatively and positively;
  2. The ability to create highly functional teams on a relatively short timescale with groups of people from different backgrounds and with differing agendas.

The results, the company confirmed at the end of the four-year project, were ‘unexpected and wonderful’.

This article gives a very brief outline of the programme and its outcomes. A short series of later posts will explore individual arts-based sessions: dance, drama, jazz and choral conducting.

It’s not the technical issues that are the problem

Major capital projects in oil and gas exploration are notoriously prone to fail to meet target in terms of either budget or schedule – arguably the inevitable consequence of using complex technologies in often physically hostile, unpredictable environments. But the company’s research showed that projects’ failure to deliver on target was due more to ‘soft’ issues, involving the ability to get the various parties involved in projects – governments, project partners, contractors – to work successfully together as a team, than it was to ‘hard’ issues – the inevitable technical problems. As the most recent client director of the programme, Rachel (not her real name) said in an interview with the authors:

 ‘We can figure out the technical side, we can solve technical issues … you know, more cost and more time will solve most problems! And from that perspective we can fix those things – but it’s not those things that are going wrong, especially on big projects.’

Rachel’s predecessor as head of the development programme, Michael (not his real name) had said something very similar in a previous interview:

‘I could see that a lot of the issues we had with projects were in relation particularly to the way that project managers behaved, both in relationship to their staff and their stakeholders. And I guess the other thing was there was no real consistency of approach, I mean they would all be quite different so there was no real strong culture that this is the way that we do it.’

A key aspect of the change in mindset that Michael wanted his managers to achieve was the ability to be sensitive to different socio-cultural environments and to be able to improvise in the face of rapidly changing circumstances:

‘Their receptiveness to new things […] for a project is important because each time these people are going out to probably different cultures, different countries, different environments. So I think having that ability to respond to what’s coming at them rather than just trying to bulldoze through, and “Well, that’s how I do it, and that’s how I’m going to do it here” [is vital].’

Exploring the techniques and mindsets of performing artists

To address these and other issues, Mark Powell proposed a radical and innovative programme at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, giving delegates an intense, week-long exposure to artists of all kinds: actors, jazz musicians, dancers, singers, conductors, poets, storytellers and painters. Mark, an associate fellow of the business school, is a strategy consultant who has been a partner at both KPMG and A.T. Kearney, in addition to running several start-up businesses. Mark is also a World Championship-winning Latin ballroom dancer, having won more than 50 titles over the course of a dancing career that began when he was a student of economics at Cambridge University and continued through his career as a management consultant.

As Mark says,

‘I realized that the way of working together that my dance partner and I used to deliver championship-winning performances was different from the kind of relationship that I had with my business partners, or the kinds of relationship that I saw in the companies I was consulting for. I also realized that the way that we worked together as a dance partnership could be broken down and analysed. And the more I worked with other artists – actors, conductors, jazz musicians – the more I realized that we were all using very similar techniques and mindsets and that these could be communicated to other people and used very effectively in the world of business and even in everyday life.’

Changing behaviors with ‘aha!’ moments of gut understanding

Key to Mark’s coaching approach is the belief that offering people new ideas in the form of information – ‘telling people things’ – is very unlikely to change their behavior. But when they experience something at a gut, emotional level, this can bring about a real and permanent change to the way that they see things and the way that they behave.

‘When people work closely with really great performing artists – dancers, singers, conductors, jazz musicians, whatever – they experience something,’ says Mark. ‘It’s very moving, it’s very powerful, so it gets beneath people’s intellectual defences and then, typically, they really ‘get’ something. They really see how two dancers ‘connect’ – how they watch each other intently and pick up tiny bodily cues that allow them to move together, at speed, in an apparently magical way. Or they really ‘get’ how jazz musicians allow leadership to move around the group without any apparent signals, or how a choir and a conductor create a uniquely affecting performance of a piece of music, based only on the choir’s instinctive interpretation of the conductor’s body language. And when that wonderful ‘aha!’ moment happens, it never leaves you. So these people go back to their world with a different view of how you can work creatively with someone; how you can develop this real ‘ensemble’ approach of “We’re going to work together to make this a winning performance, and I have to help you to be brilliant to enable me to be brilliant.”’

The programme had not been easy to ‘sell’ to senior figures in the corporation. As programme director, Michael, told the authors:

‘I guess the sort of standard project management course would have been, you know, do the cost estimating and schedule risk management. And there was an awful lot of pressure from certain parts of the company to do that, that this should be just a skills training programme.’

But as Rachel confirmed:

‘I think there is an intuitive understanding at a lot of senior levels that in order to get extraordinary results you need to do something extraordinary, and getting people outside of their comfort zones and getting people to try something that is extraordinarily unusual for them is where we got the best realizations from those people about their own environment, their own behavior, their own transactions and relations with others.’

Ten behavioural lessons from the performing arts

The ‘take-outs’ from this kind of intense and varied programme of arts-related coaching are highly varied and differ between the forms of performing arts involved and from individual to individual. The main take-outs from the programme can be summarised in the form of 10 questions.

  • What performance are we in and what is our role?
  • Where is our theatre of action?
  • Have we built a trusting, connected, partnership or ensemble?
  • Are we rehearsing creatively?
  • Do we have the right people in the room?
  • Do we know what inputs are creating our outputs?
  • Where is the art in what we do?
  • Is our leadership shared, allowed and inspirational?
  • Are we helping each other to perform brilliantly?
  • Are we delivering a winning performance?

The programme director, Michael, confirmed that delegates had indeed acquired a greater self-awareness of their own leadership style and behavior:

‘A lot of them work very hard, there’s a lot of energy, and they don’t necessarily ever step back and look at their impact and how they appear to others. Whereas in a lot of these sessions it did make them reflect on it and think well, that’s how I behave and that’s how I come across. So there was quite a lot of that in the sessions, people were forced to just reflect and think and experience in a different way. And it did have an impact on some of them. Particularly the more difficult characters […] Probably the two most disruptive in the whole population did, in the end, turn out to be those two that were most supportive of the whole thing.’

A very real financial “oomph”

A culture of increased ‘open-mindedness’ did develop amongst the project managers who had attended the programme, leading to greatly improved relationships with their complex teams of stakeholders, and several individual initiatives in problem-solving that saved the company considerable amounts of time and money.

To give Rachel the last word on the arts-based programme’s effect on delegates:

‘It was completely unexpected and far greater than we had anticipated […] A lot of the perception before that was that the benefits [would be] more intangible; that the benefits were more soft and fuzzy and fluffy […] and what we found when we actually got this back is that’s not actually the case at all and that the results that were coming back were much more concrete and much more distinct than we expected – there was a very real financial oomph.

Read more about what business can learn from the arts in a series of four additional posts, beginning with Turning Businesses Into Ensembles, which explores the business lessons to be learned from the techniques and mindsets used by leading actors.

A semi-fictionalised account of Dr Powell’s ground-breaking arts-based leadership programme is given in the business novel Perform To Win: Unlocking the secrets of the arts for personal and business success, by Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford

A full account of the dance-related Dr Powell’s ground-breaking programme was published in the Journal of Organizational Aesthetics.

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